Three community-focused groups emerge in Elkhart following homicides

Elkhart Roundtable, My Hood Needz Me and Nine Blocks are all focused on improving life in south central neighborhoods.

Posted on Aug. 29, 2014 at 10:04 a.m.

ELKHART — The violent deaths of two teens last year and of a 7-year-old girl a year earlier appear to have served as a tipping point and given birth to three groups working independently to improve life in Elkhart’s south central neighborhoods.

Representatives of the groups — My Hood Needz Me, Elkhart Community Roundtable and Nine Blocks — all pointed to the deaths of Kristyana Jackson, Braxton Barhams and Devonte Patrick as impetus for taking action.

Seven-year-old Kristyana was gunned down in a home invasion in August of 2012. Barhams, 16, was shot and killed last summer near the intersection of Benham and West Garfield avenues in what might have been a gang-related dispute. Patrick,18, was shot multiple times two days before Christmas in a church parking lot on Prairie Street.

“I believe we all looked at the situation, even from our own personal lives, and said, ‘We can’t let it get any worse than this,’ ” said Jermaine Sanders, the founder of My Hood Needz Me, created a little more than a year ago.

Specifically, he said, people are worried about what appears to be a “down spiral of the community’s condition” that threatens a generation of young people living in south central Elkhart.

The three groups work independently, but there is interaction and some overlap. The following is a recap of each group and what leaders say they plan to do to improve life in their neighborhoods.

My Hood Needz Me

Sanders, a pastor at The Ol Rugged Fellowship Church in Elkhart, relies on a core group of about seven people who have been working together since the middle of 2013.

The group seeks to work primarily with young people to stave off what Sanders sees as a “decline in self value.”

After one year, the group is quickly gaining momentum.

In the past 12 months, they organized two dances at the Tolson Center, and on Mother’s Day, they distributed roses and paper for people passing through Roosevelt Park to give as gifts to their mothers.

On Sunday, Aug. 31, the group will host Southside Family Fun Fest at Roosevelt Park from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

But Sanders and others have also been laying groundwork after the group received not-for-profit status that allows donors to write off gifts on their taxes.

Sanders said donations are now beginning to flow.

In the next few days, the group will open an office space at the Roosevelt Center.

The group hopes to take advantage of existing programs to connect with young people. Once those connections are made, volunteers will have more of an opportunity to work directly with young people.

That’s what they hope to do with Roosevelt’s Ballers 2 Scholars, a basketball program with a tutoring component that was established and run by LaCasa Inc. community organizer Jason Moreno last year at Roosevelt Center.

Oversight of Ballers 2 Scholars is shifting to My Hood Needz Me. Sanders said the change will provide more manpower to oversee the program.

The program fits well with the group’s desire to mentor youth in ways that points them toward collegiate opportunities.

The group is also working to establish a partnership with Goshen College in hopes of encouraging more local students to consider enrolling, Sanders said.

Sanders said the group plans to hold meetings at its new office at 3 p.m. on Saturdays in September. To learn more go to the group’s website at myhoodneedzme.org.

Elkhart Community Roundtable

This group was launched this spring following the death of Patrick.

The group includes about five people who have been meeting twice a month since the spring, and they have the support of 20 to 30 who are interested in activities, said Gary Johnson, who works with his son, Leighton Johnson.

“So many people in the community want to get involved but just don’t know how,” said Leighton Johnson, who has served as a spokesperson for the group.

Some of the group’s attention was diverted by the July 3 Garfield Avenue incident, in which a police officer was attacked, and complaints that followed from residents who said police retaliated with heavy-handed patrols for several days afterward.

Those allegations of police harassment were one of many discussed during a public forum at the Roosevelt Center in mid-July hosted by the group.

The meeting was well-attended, and Gary Johnson said the community reaction afterward was positive.

“We did what we could to help try to quell some of the anger, and one way to do that is let them speak, let them vent,” Gary Johnson said. “I feel it did help.”

Weeks later, roundtable representatives issued a series of proposals to Mayor Dick Moore, who a week later expressed support for several initiatives mentioned by the group. Those included more diversity training, as well as the use of vest cameras for police.

Gary Johnson said they were pleased with the mayor’s response.

However, the group is currently in a state of flux and attempting to reorganize after two original members stepped aside.

Gary Johnson said the group is interested in looking at voter registration and efforts to better inform the electorate, some of which don’t know enough about how the political system works.

At the same time, though, they wish to remain non-partisan, he said.

To learn more, contact the group via email at elkhartcommunityroundtable@gmail.com.

Nine Blocks

This group is focused solely on the surrounding blocks around Historic Roosevelt Center.

About nine core members of the group have been meeting regularly since January, just weeks after Barhams’ killing, said Rod Roberson, a city council member who represents the group.

In some ways, it’s an experiment in establishing a group that can advocate for a small community.

Roberson said he sees Nine Blocks serving as an advocacy group for the neighborhood and not the entire south side of the city.

The group is evolving, but Roberson said he believes the over-arching goal is to serve as a conduit between resources and the community.

A small example of that arose during a meeting in which a representative of My Hood Needz Me mentioned the need for office space. Roberson said they were able to help find space at the Roosevelt Center, which is operated by LaCasa, Inc.

They’ve also teamed up with My Hood Needz Me in what some call the Twilight venture, in which members of My Hood Needz Me work with and mentor people 20 years old and younger, primarily after sunset.

Roberson said the group is working to survey the neighborhood to determine what people might be willing to commit to do.

He envisions the group helping make connections, whether that is helping fill a retail space across from the Roosevelt Center or educating people about scholarships.

Much of what happens depends on what the residents want, he said.

Roberson said the south side has a history of success in establishing entities such as Heart City Health, the Tolson Center and the Roosevelt Center, and he believes the community can’t allow particular events to derail the positive efforts.

Nine Blocks prefers to keep a low profile in the community, and meetings are not open to the public.

He said they are hopeful that Nine Blocks can serve as a counterbalance to some of the problems in the neighborhood.

“We realize Nine Blocks can’t stop the next shooting, but hopefully we can have some impact on the community overall and reduce the environment where these things happen pretty frequently,” Roberson said.

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